Rescue at Remagen
By Randolph Hils
(Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the Spring 2004 edition of the American Airborne Association's Airborne Quarterly, pilot, Gerald "Bud" Berry of the 439th Troop carrier Group sent more information on this mission after the article was submitted. Bud piloted the C-47 that towed the first glider, piloted by Howard Cloud. In researching the mission Bud Berry contacted Flight Nurse Suella Bernard Delp for her recollections of the mission and they differ in a couple of aspects from those provided by Howard Cloud. I include this and other material provided by Bud Berry in the interest of a more complete account of this historic mission. The differing personal recollections of the mission, underscores, the difficulty of gathering the facts of an event nearly sixty years after it occurred. There is another account of the mission in Gerard Devlin's book, Silent Wings, yet based on the documents provided by Howard Cloud and Gerald Berry it appears that Devlin's account is largely inaccurate. Included here, are previously unpublished photos of the mission from the collection of Howard Cloud and an excellent photo of Berry pulling a glider pick-up at Normandy from Bud Berry's collection.)
The book, Bridge at Remagen, by former Army historian Ken Hechler is one of the most dramatic accounts of battle in WWII. The Ludendorff Bridge, the last intact bridge across the Rhine River into Germany was the scene of an epic struggle between American forces that captured it and German forces bent on its destruction. Though the bridge was captured intact, shell damaged and overloaded it collapsed on March 17, 1945 killing 28 American soldiers who were attempting to reinforce its structure. With the collapse of the bridge traffic to the other side of the Rhine was restricted to just a few pontoon bridges that had been constructed close by. The area, on the eastern side of the Rhine River was an important first foothold for the final drive into the heartland of Germany. It was known as the Remagen Bridgehead. On March 22, 1945 as the Allies readied for OPERATION VARSITY, their massive airborne assault into Germany, one more drama unfolded at the bridgehead, the rescue at Remagen.
Major Howard H. Cloud was "old" Army, having enlisted in the National Guard in 1937. By March 1945 Cloud was an experienced hand who had seen his share of combat. In September 1940 Howard Cloud was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and called to active duty. When a call for volunteers for the new glider pilot program went out in 1942 Cloud signed up and upon completion of his training was assigned to the 440th TCG (Troop Carrier Group) when the group formed in mid 1943. Cloud participated in the Normandy Invasion and quickly rose in the ranks to fly the lead glider for the 440th in the Invasion of Southern France, OPERATION DRAGOON. In September 1944 Cloud again led the 440th glider assault in the spearhead into Holland, OPERATION MARKET GARDEN. Cloud was wounded in action in Holland, his glider hit by a round from a deadly German 88-mm. gun and he was evacuated to Fulbeck, England. After recovering from his wounds now Major, Cloud was re-assigned to 9th TCC (Troop Carrier Command) Headquarters as Command Glider Pilot for the European Theater.
The collapse of the Ludendorf Bridge on March 17, 1945 immediately put a strain on the flow of traffic to and from the battlefield as the few pontoon bridges thrown up at the bridgehead were hard pressed to handle the traffic of Bradley's 1st Army. Soon the critically wounded were piling up at the bridgehead as medical evacuations slowed. The most severely wounded required immediate medical attention at larger hospitals in the rear areas in France. Even under good conditions, evacuation by field ambulances to these hospitals could take nearly four hours and there were no landing strips in the area that could accommodate evacuation by C-47. As the situation worsened the 1st Army looked to 9th TCC for a solution.
Pick-ups of gliders from the battlefield by the "snatch" method had been in practice and used by troop carrier units in the European Theater since Normandy when the technique was employed to recover serviceable gliders where C-47s could not land. A ground crew set up a pick-up station for the glider and a low flying C-47 specially equipped with the pick-up unit would swoop in low trailing an arm with a hook. The hook was connected to a steel cable that passed through the arm and wound around a drum inside the pick-up mechanism mounted in the aircraft. Pay out of the cable was controlled by a multiple disc brake in the drum unit. As the hook connected with a glider tow loop suspended from the pick-up station, shock to the glider was controlled through the pick-up mechanism brake and the glider became airborne as the cable played out.
At 9th TCC headquarters chief surgeon Lieutenant Colonel Robert Burquist was aware that pick-up of the wounded by this technique had already been demonstrated in the China, Burma, India Theater. Recognizing the technique was tailor made for the deteriorating situation at Remagen, he ordered two gliders to be converted for ambulance service. There was some difficulty getting the special C-47s needed for the unusual mission. ETO (European Theater of Operations), troop carrier groups had a normal compliment of two "snatch" equipped C-47s per group. Most of these specially fitted C-47's were slated for regular paratroop operations as 9th TCC scrambled to gather every available C-47 in theater to drop paratroopers in the largest airborne assault of the war, OPERATION VARSITY. Two of the planes were finally detailed for Burquist's mission, one from the 439th TCG and another from the 441st TCG.
Plans to execute the glider "snatch" air evacuation of the wounded moved quickly. On March 17, 1945 pilot Gerald C. (Bud) Berry of the 91st Squadron of the 439th TCG received orders to proceed with his specially equipped glider pick-up C-47 to Rheims, France. On March 18, 1945 Berry demonstrated for the assembled brass, the feasibility and safety of picking up loads of wounded men in a combat area. The pick-up of unloaded gliders was not as tricky as the pick-up of a fully loaded CG-4A glider and these demonstration pick-ups were to utilize CG-4A's fully loaded with simulated litter patients. According to Bud Berry, "Not only did the high-ranking officers witness the demonstration but they actually participated in the flight. They split into two groups, on the first demo snatch one group riding in the glider and the other in the airplane with me. They then reversed places for the second snatch so they all experienced the actual shock from both positions. On the third demo they wanted to see how much stress would be placed on the patients so they left one litter patient unstrapped on the litter. After landing I was told that the patient had moved 6 inches back on the litter."
The steel cable, wound about the drum inside the pick-up unit mounted in the aircraft was not permanently attached to the drum. The unit could be adjusted from anything to a severe jolt, with the minimum of cable deployed, to a much softer takeoff with most of the cable deployed. Trouble could arise if too much cable was put out, the cable, upon reaching its end would detach from the drum brake and possibly destroy the glider in flight as the cable separated from the tow aircraft. With three successful pick-ups at Rheims the high-ranking officers who participated in the demonstration ordered the plan to proceed.
On March 22, 1945 the pick-up C-47, piloted by Bud Berry, Robert D. Neu, co-pilot, Albert L. Furr, crew chief and radio operator Joseph D. O'Donnell departed the 439th TCG base at Chateaudun for an airstrip near Rheims. Awaiting the pick-up team was the glider loaded with medical supplies, and glider pilot, Major Howard H. Cloud. On board were flight nurse, Lt. Suella Bernard and Captain Albert D. Haug, chief surgeon of the 816th MAES (Medical Air Evacuation Squadron). According to Bud Berry, "Howard Cloud, in a phone conversation told me that Suella Bernard was the 816th MAES nurse on his glider yet in a letter from Suella in 1998 she told me that she was not on that glider. It was her memory that Capt. Albert D. Haug flew on the first glider." Berry landed and the glider was hooked up and towed into flight by the 439th aircraft. Joining the mission 9th TCC dispatched a P-38 fighter piloted by a 9th TCC A-3 officer who escorted the unarmed planes and photographed the mission from the air.
Meanwhile, at the bridgehead, a makeshift landing strip for the gliders was quickly bulldozed out of a potato patch sandwiched between an apple orchard and the Rhine River. Anxious and curious soldiers watched as the odd combination of aircraft appeared out of the horizon. Bud Berry flew in low and released the glider, which circled the field in a series of smaller circles. Suddenly Cloud dropped the glider into the patch, the sound of the air rushing past the fuselage and wings was very loud. The heavily loaded glider bounced once and coasted to a stop in less than fifty yards.
Waiting with the wounded and medics Army Signal Corps cameramen were on hand to record the historic event. Wasting no time the nose of the glider was lifted to open access to the cargo area and the much-needed supplies were quickly unloaded as field ambulances backed up to the glider rigged with stretchers. Cloud who had been busy checking the glider and talking with a couple of colonels had not been watching. "Are we pulling dummies on this trip or are they really wounded?" he asked. "Oh they are plenty wounded," one of the lieutenants answered, "and you also have a couple of Krauts." "To hell with the Krauts" the major exclaimed. "I don't go for that. I don't mind coming down here for American kids, but there are no kraut gliders doing the same for us." When the wounded were informed they would be transported to the field hospital by glider, none objected.
When the glider was completely loaded the front section was secured in place and the glider fastened to the pick-up station as Major Cloud assumed his position at the controls. Joining him in the co-pilot seat for the historic return trip was a chief surgeon of the 1st Army, Col. Ansbacker. The pick-up station consisted of two red and white striped poles set twenty feet apart. The pick-up loop was suspended between the poles twelve feet in the air. Bud Berry writes, "A standard procedure for pick-up when there were to be no radio communications was to place a broad yellow banner, on the pick-up run in and near the pick-up station, and perpendicular to the path of flight. When the glider was ready for pick-up the yellow banner was changed to a position leading right into the pick-up station parallel to the line of flight. That was the procedure followed that day." Tension began to build in the gathered crowd of GI's and one watching soldier remarked to another, "I bet those boys inside are mighty nervous in the service right now." Testing the glider controls Cloud yelled out for somebody to check his rudder and a GI ran back and then forward to the cockpit an informed Cloud that all was okay.
Meanwhile, circling overhead Berry and his crew awaited the signal to attempt the pick-up. Having no idea of the weight to expect he and his crew chief discussed the setting of the brake in the pick-up unit, concerned over what a severe jolt would do to the wounded inside the glider. After considering all the angles he instructed the crew chief to set the unit as loosely as possible and stand-by the brake to apply more as required. Once the signal was given Berry dropped the C-47 into lower and lower circles then turned north away from the field to set up the pick-up approach. Berry described his approach this way, "After releasing the glider we flew a regular traffic pattern to the right at constant altitude. To the south out over the bridge, 90 degree turn to the right, 90 degree turn to the right onto the downwind leg, 90 degree turn onto the base leg and a 90 degree turn onto final approach and back over the glider. This was repeated over and over until the glider was ready for pick-up. A yellow panel was placed in front of the pick-up station and perpendicular to the line of flight until the glider was ready, at that time the panel was rotated to parallel to the flight line on the approach. As we flew the pattern we observed the panel each time we crossed the station and when it was rotated we made the snatch on the next pass."
With a final turn, in what must have been an impressive sight to those on the ground, he came in very fast and low. The roar of the C-47 so close to the ground was deafening and as the plane passed over Cloud's glider filled with wounded, the trailing hook hit the pick-up station on target, the rope went taut, the glider pitched once, and it was airborne.
As the amazed soldiers watched the C-47 and glider join the awaiting fighter escort Lt. Steve Campbell remarked, "I feel like I've just watched the Wright brothers take off at Kitty Hawk." Aboard Berry's C-47 the crew had sweated out the pick-up. To Berry the pay out of the cable seemed faster than normal and the reassuring feeling of the gentle tug of the glider in tow seemed to take longer than usual. When the expected whine of the unit stopped crew chief Al Furr appeared and announced to the pilots that there was but one rotation of cable left on the drum. Berry wrote later in a letter to Col. Charles H. Young, the CO of the 439th that, "We had given those glider passengers the easiest, smoothest ride they could have gotten. Only the crew knew how close we had come to losing them completely."
In less than thirty minutes Cloud and the precious cargo of wounded was over the field hospital. When Major Cloud asked Col. Ansbacker where he wanted the glider the surgeon pointed to a large surgical tent with a Red Cross insignia on the roof. After he cut loose, Cloud expertly maneuvered the glider into position for landing. When the wheels touched down the glider rolled right up to the entrance and stopped. Watching from above Bud Berry later wrote that Cloud was, "so close that when the nose was lifted it completely covered the entrance canopy. If it had been raining, those patients wouldn't even have gotten wet."
On the heels of the first glider snatch of wounded in the ETO a second snatch was done that day by a crew from the 441st TCG, the snatch was executed by pilot, 1st Lt. John F. Clippard.
Suella Bernard believes that she was on this second glider mission. She told Bud Berry that, "the glider on which she flew had a wheel collapse on landing. It veered to the edge of the field and came to rest near a fence. The patients had to be transported to the surgical tent by ambulance." At this writing the identity of the pilot of the second glider remains a mystery.
The glider-evacuation service was in place do to the ingenuity and talent of many. General Orders No. 69, HQ, IX Troop Carrier Command dated 17 May 1945 lists the participants in this mission who were awarded the Air Medal. They are:
Suella V. Bernard 1st Lt. 816th MAES
Francis D. Woodward T. Sgt. 441st TCG
Howard H. Cloud Jr. Maj. HQ, IX Troop Carrier Command
Walter A Barker 2nd Lt. 304th TCS, 442nd TCG
Gerald C. Berry 1st Lt 91st TCS, 439th TCG
John F. Clippard 1st Lt. 302nd TCS, 441st TCG
George D. Wolf 2nd Lt. 59th TCS, 61st TCG
Albert D. Haug Capt. 816th MAES
Just a week after the collapse of the Ludendorff Bridge on the 24th the giant airborne Army of VARSITY breached the Rhine a second time. Bud Berry recalled, "This pick-up was not thought of as a single event but was part of a plan for use in the Varsity Mission 2 days hence. The plan conceived to be used if the ground troops crossing the Rhine were unable to effect a rapid rendezvous with the airborne troops and medical evacuations were necessary. Several gliders were to be equipped with litters and pick-up stations and dropped with the invasion forces. They would then be used as medical ambulances utilizing the snatch procedure if necessary. The link-up was made quickly so the plan was never used." The rescue at Remagen and the glider ambulance service faded into history.
During WWII, Howard Cloud earned the Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, the Bronze Star with Valor, the Purple Heart and the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters. He went on to a long distinguished career in the US Air Force. In 1965 he retired with the rank of Colonel. Today he lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado and is an active supporter of the 440th Troop Carrier Group Association.
Gerald A."Bud" Berry entered the US Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet program in December of 1942, received his Commission as 2nd Lt. in November of 1943 and was assigned to The Troop Carrier Command with the 91st Squadron of the 439th TCG. His combat missions included the Normandy paradrop, Southern France paradrop and glider tow, Holland glider tow and re-supply. He earned the Air Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters and unit awards of the Presidential Unit Citation and French Croix de Guerre and Fourragere and ETO Ribbon with 7 battle stars.
Discharged from regular service in October of 1945 Bud immediately entered Pennsylvania State University graduating in June of 1949 with a BS in Chemical Engineering. He is a loyal supporter of the 91st Troop Carrier Squadron Assn. WWII and resides in Clearwater, FL.
Bibliography and Sources:
Berry, Gerald A., emails to author, 12/30/03, 1/19/04 and 7/20/04
Cloud, Howard H., personal papers and interviews with the author in November 2003.
Heinz, W.C., Gliders Take Wounded From Rhine, The New York Sun Newspaper, 1945.
Lowden, John L., Silent Wings at War: Combat Gliders in WWII, 1992, Smithsonian Institution Press
Young, Charles H., Into the Valley: The Untold Story of the USAAF Troop Carrier in WWII, 1995, PrintComm, Inc.